This interview first appeared online at the San Antonio Current.
Whether it’s trying his hand at directing and screenwriting like he did last year with the action movie “The Man with the Iron Fists,” remaking a martial arts film like “The Last Dragon,” which some consider a classic, or hashing out internal conflict with fellow Wu-Tang Clan members to get a new album out by this summer, hip-hop performer/producer and actor RZA is ready for any and all challenges. In his new film “Brick Mansions,” a remake of the 2004 French action movie “District 13,” RZA plays Tremaine Alexander, a drug kingpin who kidnaps the girlfriend of an ex-con (David Belle) who inhabits the same dystopian Detroit housing project he does. Along with an angry, Parkour-trained boyfriend, Tremaine is also sought out by a cop (Paul Walker, in his final full film performance) looking to avenge his father’s death.
During an interview with me, RZA talked about how Parkour reminds him of the street culture he grew up around in New York City, working side by side with the late Paul Walker and why he thinks remaking a martial arts film like “The Last Dragon” is giving the consumer what they want.
What was it like watching Parkour co-founder David Belle doing his thing on the set of “Brick Mansions?” It must’ve looked unreal to see what he is able to do with his body.
Oh, yeah, he’s got it down pat. [David] has mastered that craft. It was cool watching him do his own stunts on the set. For me, coming from hip-hop, break dancing was something I knew coming from the streets of New York. Kids would get cardboard boxes and spin on their heads. Parkour, to me, is like modern break dancing for the French.
So, do you think we should start considering break dancing a form of martial arts now?
Yeah, it’s street culture. [Break dancing] can be considered a martial art now. It’s a training tactic. It’s funny to think about how things were started by people in the neighborhood just using their environment to entertain and push themselves. I guess the first guy that did it was probably hanging on the roof thinking, “I wonder if I could jump and make it to the other roof” and went for it. (Laughs) It’s not an easy sport. To me, it’s about conquering your fears and having faith in what you can do as a person. Those guys are really brave. There’s something really hip-hop about it.
Were you tempted to at least try one Parkour move to see if you could do it?
Well, I wasn’t like, “Hey, let me jump through that window!” (Laughs) I was cool. My character didn’t have to do a lot of jumping. He had his golden gun. It was kind of cool to avoid some of those crazy stunts. As an actor you find yourself trying things you normally wouldn’t do and accomplish some of your fears. If [Parkour] was something that was part of my character, then I would’ve engaged. But I was very, very comfortable and happy to leave the Parkour to David and his crew this time.
Do you enjoy playing the antagonist as much as you do the hero like you were in your last film “The Man with the Iron Fists?”
Yeah, I think getting a chance to play the character Tremaine Alexander was good for me. When I first started out in hip-hop during the early Wu-Tang days, I was always about bringing the ruckus. Over the years, I think I’ve become very humble as a person. As an actor, you put on different pants and different shoes and go out there and portray different personalities. That’s what Tremaine was for me. It was a chance for me to get a little more rugged and capture that energy on the screen. It felt good to let that energy out.
Was it interesting for you to play someone who is temperamental, especially since you’ve adopted such a peaceful martial arts mantra and spiritual nature in your own life over the years?
It was. It’s funny because people say that actors can really lose themselves in a character. There’s some truth to that. Being somebody every day for a period of time, you become that person. I caught myself doing that when I was backstage with Wu-Tang. I had to tell myself, “Save that shit for the screen, man.”
Since you play the main villain, was it important to stay in character when the cameras weren’t rolling or was it cool to just hang out with everyone and take a break?
Yeah, there were some days when me and Paul Walker would be on the set and we would need to have this conflicting energy. On those days, I didn’t knock on his trailer door for lunch. I tried to stay away from him because our characters weren’t supposed to like each other and Paul was such a cool dude. His personality and spirit were so cool.
Everyone, of course, was shocked at the passing of Paul back in November. What are you going to remember most about him now that you’ve spent some time with him?
He was a good man and good father. We all want to be good fathers to our children and good men to our families and peers. He was grounded and had a good spirit about him. He was very caring. It was a joy to meet him and get to know him. It was definitely a tragedy. I’m glad he is still able to share his energy from his films on the screen.
How do you feel your personal spirituality and open-mindedness to different religions helps you as an actor and what you want to accomplish in this industry? Is there some kind of professional enlightenment you get from your beliefs when you’re on set?
I think that comes with your personality as a man and being grounded in spirituality and mindfulness. With that, you can get along with people on set and understand the qualities that everybody brings to a movie. Speaking of spirituality, ego is something we all deal with every day. When you’re on a set, there are a lot of egos and a lot of moving parts. If that’s not checked, you can end up being a real asshole to some people. You could really make a set uncomfortable. I’ve been on a few sets where I was with a group of people and couldn’t wait until the day was over. But for the most part, there are a lot of talented people in Hollywood who have grown to a level of understanding and known that we all bring something to the table. That awareness I’ve had over the years has been a benefit for me as I meet new people from different walks of life. It’s good to be grounded so you’ll pay attention to the cultures of others and the way they do things. When you’re working, it’s important to find that balance and collaborate and ignore all those personal things and come together to fulfill a job.
It’s no secret you’re planning on producing a remake of 1985’s martial arts film “The Last Dragon.” Some people could argue that this is one of those instances where the original shouldn’t be touched. What would you say to them and the reason you want to see a new version?
I think any film can be revisited based on the generation that is watching it or engaged in it. Almost anything can be updated for a new generation. You go to the store and buy new and improved soap detergent – new and improved Tide. It’s an upgrade based on the consumer. This is an opportunity to take something we all felt was a classic as kids and bring that concept to a new audience. As a filmmaker and artist, it’s always a challenge to make something valuable and relevant to the times you’re in. I’m always willing to take on a challenge like that.